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Cell Game: Novel Software Helps Match Up Inmates, Prisons

FILE - A cell is shown in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, Jan. 13, 2017.
FILE - A cell is shown in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, Jan. 13, 2017.

A university engineering department has developed what amounts to a Tinder app for criminals — a computer program that matches inmates with suitable prisons.

The software, unique in the corrections field, has saved the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections about $3 million in its first year. It's resulted in fewer prison assaults, shortened wait times for treatment programs by nearly two months, reduced the number of prison transfers and lightened the workload of corrections staff.

Corrections officials marvel that nobody thought of it sooner.

"It's pretty amazing, and what we've seen so far is the outcomes are a lot better," said Major William Nicklow of the state prison in Camp Hill, who oversaw the project as the prison system's director of population management.

On Tuesday, the Lehigh University team that developed the software accepted the Wagner Prize, the top international prize in the field of operations research practice.

Their work has dramatically simplified the job of assigning inmates to prisons.

Previously, corrections staff handled prisoner assignments one at a time, a laborious and inefficient process that meant inmates farther down the list were at a disadvantage when it came to placement in high-demand treatment programs.

The software, in contrast, can assign hundreds of inmates simultaneously, taking into account dozens of factors including age and other inmate demographics, criminal history, mental illness, and educational and vocational interests to come up with the most appropriate placement for each inmate. It also identifies gang members as well as inmates most likely to be violent and separates them, reducing the threat at individual prisons.

The software can finish in minutes what it took a staff of seven an entire week to do.

"This very complex problem is mathematically modeled, put in the system and the system is advising where the inmate has to be assigned," said Tamas Terlaky, one of the program's developers and a professor in Lehigh's industrial and systems engineering department. "The benefits are quite obvious."

Other corrections departments have taken note. At least three other states as well as the federal prison system have made inquiries about the software, Terlaky said.